Film Goethe Society Wellington film night: Friedland

Friedland, film still © Goethe-Institut

Wed, 15.11.2017

Wellington, Von Zedlitz Building

Kelburn Parade
6012 Wellington

Director: Frauke Sandig, colour, 85 min., 2015

Friedland is an idyllic town in Lower Saxony. Its claim to fame goes back to 1945, when the British military occupation administration established a camp for internally displaced persons and war returnees here. It has welcomed people ever since, from Hungary, Chile, Vietnam and the former east German GDR. Today it is a reception camp for asylum seekers mainly from Syria, Eritrea und Afghanistan. Documentarist Frauke Sandig lets former German inmates narrate their experiences of fleeing and of life in the immediate post-War era, and she confronts their memories with the experiences of today's refugees. The result is a moving document of hardship, hope and humanity.   

The refugees arrive at Hanover airport, most of them families from Syria, who lost everything - even loved ones. From here they are taken to Friedland, where they usually stay for two weeks before being re-distributed to other German states. The idyllic summer setting, which the film maker regularly applies in inserts, appears like an embodiment of the promise of peace and a new life for the refugees in safety. “Germany is a beautiful country“, says Jibreel Adam; he wants to start to work soon and not exist on German pockets - a view echoed by many other refugees. Most are optimistic, especially as they have experienced what Germans have come to call ”Willkommenskultur“, a welcoming culture, which sprang up here in the summer 2015, before the mood here, and more or less all over Europe, changed in the subsequent year, whipped up by populist right-wingers, but also under the impression of criminal and terrorist acts.

As moving as the suffering experienced by the refugees from Syria, Eritrea or Afghanistan might be: the emotional power of this film derives from confronting the experiences of today's refugees with those of Germans, primarily war returnees and refugees from the East, who came to the camp after World War II, soon after it was established in autumn 1945 by the British occupational military administration. Then and now, the camp has provided urgent early help. Today, too, your term there is limited. The experience of displacement, loss, and violence as recounted by Annelie Keil or Edelgard Grothey does not fundamentally differ from what the Syrian refugees have had to go through. Detmar Heller came to the hopelessly overcrowded camp in 1947 as an 18-year-old former POW in Russia. Life for him felt “like a dream”. There was food, medical care, and normal people, who looked after you. Annelie Keil adds, she “learnt early that your life on earth is not guaranteed.”

FRIEDLAND begins with an arrival and ends with the departure of those early arrivals. They are comparatively optimistic. The audience, however, starts worrying as you have taken these refugees to your hearts, with their bitter stories and their ostensibly naive expectations about their very future. Friedland Reception Camp is a peaceful island miraculously devoid of the conflicts of the reality of life in Germany. Militant xenophobia and burning refugee shelters are absent here. Here rests an underlying danger, people might over-estimate a welcoming mood as represented in jubilant masses of Germans welcoming the new arrivals at Munich's train station. The humanity of Friedland or Munich is no longer the rule – apart from those who are active in aiding refugees in and outside the camps, there now exists a number of xenophobic Germans that is not to be underestimated, as recent regional elections in autumn 2016 in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern with successes for the far-right AfD party have shown.

In one fabulous little sequence Frauke Sander observes the refugees during an excursion into a nearby town: They are amazed by how peaceful the dogs are and willing to let themselves be stroked. Jibreel says, “In Syria dogs bite you. Here they're peaceful because they're being looked after.” What a wonderful explanation of violence and the implications of the lacking care!

Friedland Reception Camp seems like the promise of setting up home in Germany. The refugees' future is uncertain, of which the filmmaker is only too aware. “At a time when refugee shelters in many places in Germany are set on fire, I seek to put a face and give a voice to individual refugees, to let them personally speak of their fate and report on the situation in their home countries – to confront anonymous statistics of an apparent flood of refugees with real people!” It is the same stance with which she also examines the 80-year history of Friedland. Frauke Sandig has made a deeply sensitive, moving, and edifying documentary on the burning issue of “refugees in Germany”. There is an instance during German language class when everyone sings: “Wie schön, dass du da bist - How wonderful you're here!“